Save Your Democracy by Not Voting

I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

Thomas Jefferson

Around elections people frequently say things like “get out and vote!” The assumption is if you cast a ballot you are somehow preserving democracy. But what if by voting you are actually helping to undermine the very system and freedoms you’re trying to preserve?

In principle, elected officials make decisions that reflect the will of the people. Additionally, civic officials sometimes protect democracy by not making decisions reflecting the will of the majority.

Following the Boston Massacre in 1770 a lawyer named John Adams was tasked with defending several British soldiers accused of murdering American protestors. Adams was under considerable pressure not to vigorously defend the accused. A guilty verdict would mean the soldiers would be hanged thereby satisfying the American desire for revenge. But Adams was a principled man who believed in the rule of law, due process rights, and that a truly free society was one where principles (not emotion or the capricious will of the majority) was the basis of civic order. The accused received a fair trial and were found not guilty.

Looking to a contemporary Canadian example, when Prime Minister Paul Martin managed to push through the Civil Marriage Act in 2005, he did so despite the fact many Canadians opposed same sex marriage; however, he had a duty to protect the fundamental rights of all Canadians (and not just preserve the privileges of the majority). Although preventing gay people from marrying one another might satisfy the vanity or sense of propriety of some, to deny anyone marriage equality would be a violation of democratic first-principles and the Charter of Rights of Freedoms. Martin’s greater responsibility, in this case, was to secure the rights of a minority.

The degree to which a society protects its minorities is considered a litmus test by many political theorists for how healthy a democracy is. Again, elected officials defend the people, all of the people by upholding each respective country’s constitution; these officials have to have the power to work independently, follow their conscience insofar as this is not used to justify an arbitrary or moving standard of justice, and use their personal judgement when it comes to the passage or repeal of laws; the best elected officials possess what Machiavelli called civic virtu and a strong sense of civic responsibility (as per Martin’s example).

This is the ideal: but we find few elected representatives actually operate like this; most politicians (with exception) have little to no independence of action. They can’t vote on bills based on the needs of their constituents. If they actually could, we’d have seen common sense legislation passed on regulating the proliferation of guns in the United States a long time ago; we would have seen legislation on hydraulic fracturing to protect the water supplies of communities unfortunate enough to reside on the Bakken Formation; or laws protecting people from the effluence and continuing toxic effects of mining on the health of residents in West Virginia or Montana.

Elected representatives can’t pass these laws (even if it is the will of the people). Corporations through propaganda mills like the Heartland Institute, and through cadres of tens of thousands of lobbyists, buy and sell federal and state level politicians and influence; these powerful interests own the decision-making process. So much for government for and by the people. This reality is one of the reasons why Sanders and Trump (and even Obama to an extent) were so popular. They all promise, or promised, to do something about the situation. The problem is the political system, as it is currently constituted, cannot be fixed (at least not through elections).

Americans have personal freedom but lack civic freedom; they are free to speak their minds, to follow (or not) a religion, associate with like-minded people, etc. However, Americans lack meaningful civic freedom (or power): you can hold public office but to win an election you exchange corporate donations for political favors: this compromises the independence of the sitting members of legislatures while essentially nullifying the purpose and meaning of elections.

…Americans lack meaningful civic freedom (or power): you can hold public office but to win an election you exchange corporate donations for political favors: this compromises the independence of the sitting members of legislatures while essentially nullifying the purpose and meaning of elections.

If either the Republicans or Democrats win an election the running assumption is the will of the people is being expressed. Ignoring the role propaganda has on shaping political attitudes and election outcomes, citizens do decide the outcome of elections; yet, after election day the role/will of the people ends; it is replaced by the control exercised by corporations through their lobbyists. Voters might want their representatives to end the for-profit prison or health-care systems. But elected officials can’t: they’re pressured to maintain the status-quo or face being either cut off from future campaign funding or face propaganda attacks which all but assure they will never be re-elected. So nothing changes; and worse still voters legitimate the whole thing by casting their ballots.

When you vote for and elect these compromised public officials, you are actually complicit in your own oppression. They aren’t working for you. They work for the likes of George Soros or the Koch brothers. By casting a ballot you make the whole process—from the campaign, the election itself, and finally to the decision-making processes in the legislatures that follows—legitimate. Basically, you are justifying the corporate order every four years by ratifying it through the ballot—an order which makes it nearly impossible to change the environment destroying course we are currently on; an order where we’ve seen a massive transferal of wealth to a small number of individuals; an order which is becoming increasingly unresponsive or relevant to meeting the needs of the people; and an order treating people not as equal citizens but useful only insofar as they consume, consume, consume.

The whole idea of legitimacy sets dictatorships apart from democracies. Dictatorships don’t rely on legitimacy (popular support) for control; they rely on coercion, the control of information and resources, and of course fear. Democracies by contrast only work if people feel they are genuinely part of the decision-making process. For this reason the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy developed in Great Britain is the longest lived political system currently in operation. People don’t feel the need to overthrow or replace it; it is a responsive system; it is a responsible and accountable system. The law, and everyone (even corporations), is subordinate to the civic good as upheld by the constitution.

This is not the case in the United States.

The thing about the corporations though is they know they need to keep up appearances. If people become aware, truly aware, something is wrong with the decision-making process then the gig is up (as they say). So the propaganda mill keeps churning out lies keeping people oblivious and powerless; and we keep playing our part in a sort of failed democratic ritual.

But what if we decided en masse to no longer participate in elections? If we didn’t vote, we’d stop legitimating the results of sham processes. We would generate awareness among the polity about the importance of not being passive but active in their own governance. We would in essence finally draw a line in the sand and say no more and no further. We would embarrass the elite, as the Radical Party did in Argentina in the 1920s and early 30s, into a more equitable sharing of power. There’s no getting around having an elite; yet, a more equitable balance of power is achievable. Change is possible and needed.

Critics of what I propose rightly point out that if you don’t vote then the “other guy’s” party will win the election; the running assumption though is that there’s a meaningful difference between the political parties and candidates. There is no critical difference (except in rhetoric) between the two major parties in the United States. They’re both bought and paid for. Thus, the American voter doesn’t even have the choice of choosing between the lesser of two evils…they just have evil and evil.

For this tactic of not voting to work it would require organization, time, and committed individuals. But I guarantee nothing is going to change based on the results of the next presidential election; and the next congressional election we’ll see the emergence of the same types of representatives making the same decisions for the same corporate-interested reasons. If you want to rescue democracy, one of the many things you can do is refuse to participate in meaningless, sham elections. This tactic won’t work in 2016; however, in 2020 it might be one of the few weapons left to people who genuinely want to preserve liberty.

The end game isn’t to win elections: it’s to destroy the myth that voting in and of itself constitutes a genuine expression of democratic sentiment. Citizens need to realize their democratic responsibilities do not end after election day (these responsibilities begin); they need to be active in their communities building food boxes or book boxes; they can teach literacy skills to those who lack them; they need to keep elected representatives accountable through the effective use of the media (citizen journalism); they need to quit being indifferent to the suffering of their fellow citizens when these are shot, disenfranchised or bullied, e.g. join Idle No More, Occupy or some equivalent movement (start your own movement); they need to demand of judges that the Constitution be protected and upheld, i.e. there’s no such thing as a conservative or liberal interpretation of this document (there are simply democratic first-principles we need to preserve); citizens need to take their power back from corporations and they can do that in part by achieving food independence (growing their own food), energy independence (citizens making use of either solar or wind power), and civic disobedience (not cooperating with the government).

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